Union News

Two more Victorian workers killed

It is with great sadness that we report that another two workers have been killed in Victoria.

The first fatality is that of a 60-year-old truck driver who died in hospital on January 21 as a result of a fall from the top of a truck at a Maffra grain depot the day before. He had sustained serious head injuries. 

According to WorkSafe, it appears a hand rail failed as the man was closing hatches on top of the truck's grain container, causing him to fall approximately four metres to a concrete driveway below.

The second fatality was that of a 70-year-old who died in hospital yesterday after falling from a trailer being towed by a tractor in Woorinan South on Monday. WorkSafe believes the tractor-trailer was turning when the worker fell to the road at about 1pm.

The deaths bring the workplace fatalities for 2022 to four, three more than at the same time last year. 

VTHC sends our sincerest condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of the deceased workers. No worker should be killed at work - every workplace death is preventable. Mourn for the dead and fight for the living. 

Job opportunity in the VTHC OHS Unit

The upcoming retirement of Renata - whose role includes producing SafetyNet, answering 'Ask Renata' queries, writing content for the OHS Reps@Work website and liaising with affiliates and WorkSafe - means there's a fabulous opportunity for someone to join the VTHC's vibrant OHS Unit. Please pass on to anyone who may be interested. Applications close February 20.  Check out the job description here.

COVID Update

Although Omicron continues to spread quickly across Victoria and Australia, with the state recording 14,553 cases today February 2 (up from the last few days), the outlook for the Omicron wave is improving significantly. On the 30th of January the Premier, Daniel Andrews, noted that the drop in cases in the community presented "a more optimistic picture" than government modelling had initially predicted with many epidemiologists advising the government saying that Victoria has now passed the peak of the Omicron wave.

As of today, number of active cases in Victoria today, February 2, was 73,886 (last week 139,562) with  25 deaths reported. There have now been a total 2054 COVID-related deaths in Victoria. Of the active cases, 768 are in hospital, 99 are in ICU, and 31 of these are on ventilators. You can check the Victorian live update here.

Australia wide, there have been 2,579,240 COVID cases in total (2,285,286 last week) and 3,835 total deaths.  Worldwide: as at February 2, 2022 there had been 381,718,207 worldwide infections (358,865,529 last week). There have now been 5,7063,317 official COVID-related deaths worldwide.  (Source: Worldometer.) 
Read more about Coronavirus

Vaccination update 

One of the best ways to stay protected from COVID-19 is to get the 3rd shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. This will become more important as it seems likely that the Victorian government will be including booster shots in the statewide vaccine mandate. Remember that boosters reduce your chance of hospitalisation by 90 per cent against Omicron and your chance of death by even more. To book your booster shot today, go to the Victorian government's vaccine booking portal here.

As of February 2, 92.95 per cent of Victorians over the age of 16 had been fully vaccinated, 94.27 per cent had received their first dose. Australia wide, the figures are 93.4 per cent and 95.58 per cent respectively. In Victoria, 31.6 of the total population have now had their third dose. Check the ABC Vaccine tracker and The Age for daily updates.

Many will be aware that the Victorian government requires that all workers – in Melbourne and regional Victoria – on the Authorised Worker list be fully vaccinated - including their third shot (if eligible) by 12 February. Teachers must have their third shot by February 25, if eligible. 

Is your workplace doing enough to prevent the spread of Omicron?
The COVID-Safe workplaces team is currently surveying health and safety reps and workers across Victoria to understand how Omicron has affected their workplaces and what employers are doing to limit the spread. Have your voice heard and be part of making our workplaces safer and better for all by completing the survey here!

COVID sessions for HSRs

Online COVID Safe Training for HSRs has returned this year. VTHC is running four (4) sessions over the coming weeks:  

  1. February 21 - 1 to 3.30 pm 
  2. February 28 - 1 to 3.30 pm
  3. March 10 - 12.30 to 3 pm 
  4. March 21 - 12.30 to 3 pm 

These sessions are geared towards Victorian HSRs, aimed at providing resources and information on how to exercise your powers as a HSR in helping prevent workplace outbreaks of COVID-19. They have been updated to cover the Omicron wave and the importance of Rapid Antigen Tests and booster doses, however if you attended the course last year the conversation around your powers at work is the same.

Prime minister offers aged care workers a bonus

Scott Morrison is offering an insulting one-off payment of $800 to aged care workers - an amount that for many workers won’t even cover the cost of rapid antigen tests they’ve already purchased.

A recent survey by the nurses' union (the Australian Nursing and Midwife Federation) found that a quarter of aged care workplaces are not providing free RATs to workers, with one in five workers saying they’ve paid for them out-of-pocket.

Aged care workers deserve permanent pay rises. They have told us that they’ve already spent hundreds of dollars tests. If RATs aren’t made free and accessible now, it’s likely that this cost will spill into thousands of dollars in coming months. Aged care workers need permanent pay rises and we all need free and accessible RATs for all. Send a message to your MP demanding free RATs for everyone.

Ask Renata

Apologies: Renata forgot to include an 'Ask Renata' last week - but hopefully you'll find this week's question, which came in from a manager, interesting and useful. 

Hello OHS Info

I am hoping you can provide me with some advice. We supply suitable drinking water and outlets for out staff. However I would like to know whether we are we obligated to provide hydrolytes for staff to mix into their water bottles. 

Under the OHS Act and the compliance code, employers must provide their workers with adequate facilities (so far as is reasonably practicable), which includes water. They must also provide safe systems of work and so on (under s21 of the OHS Act - see Duties of Employers). 

There is nothing specific about water additives - however, if the weather is extremely hot, and there is a risk of workers becoming dehydrated or suffering from heat stress, then there would be an argument that the use of hydrolytes is a good idea. I believe that some employers whose employees work outdoors do provide such additives as an extra control.  

The following is from a quick search of information on the internet: "The body's ability to stay cool in hot weather is dependent upon proper hydration. But hydration isn't maintained by water consumption alone. Electrolytes are also required for hydration." 

As the employer, your legal duty is to identify hazards and risks and then implement controls to either eliminate or minimise the risks to workers. If providing hydrolyte powder to add to their water means minimising the risk of the serious consequences of heat to the workers, then I believe you should be providing it. 

If you have any OHS-related questions send them in via our Ask Renata facility on the website. Your questions will be answered by Renata or one of the other members of the VTHC's OHS Unit.  

Asbestos News

Business Research and Innovation Initiative asbestos grants

In 2021, the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA) made a successful submission to the Business Research and Innovation Initiative (BRII) – RegTech Round, on the challenge of using technology for real-time and accurate asbestos testing. BRII is administered by the Australian Government, through the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources.

Five applicants to ASEA’s RegTech challenge were successful and will receive grants totalling $487,573. Grants will be used for initial 3-month feasibility studies, to test ideas to make the identification of asbestos more accurate in real-time and less burdensome overall. The most successful projects will be eligible to apply for an additional grant of up to $1 million to develop a prototype or proof of concept. Read more: ASEA media release 

UK: Families win payout from BBC for asbestos deaths

The British Broadcasting Commission (BBC) has paid £1.64m (AD$3.14) in damages over the deaths of 11 former staff members who died of cancer after working in corporation buildings riddled with asbestos. 

All 11, who included make-up artists, engineers, riggers, set builders, studio managers and television producers, died of mesothelioma. They worked at 18 locations, including Broadcasting House in central London, Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham and Television Centre in White City, west London, its headquarters for decades until 2013. The nine men and two women worked for the BBC between 1959 and 1998.

Harminder Bains, the lawyer for the families of some of former BBC staff who died of mesothelioma, said she suspected far more corporation personnel had been exposed to asbestos than those in the 11 settled lawsuits.

“While the BBC may only have settled 11 cases, I don’t believe that they have only exposed 11 people to asbestos. There must be hundreds if not a few thousand people [who were] exposed to asbestos by the BBC, given the number of locations but also the long number of years asbestos was present in BBC locations,” said Bains. Read more: The Guardian 

Brazil: Minaçu, site of the country's last asbestos mine

Even though Brazil imposed a ban on asbestos in 2017, a state law under dispute in the courts keeps Sama's Cana Brava asbestos mine nearby operational and exporting the asbestos abroad. The locals remember when it 'snowed' in Minaçu - when the town's chrysotile [white] asbestos mine lacked safety procedures to contain asbestos powder and stop it spreading across the nearby urban area. 

At any point, a court decision could suspend the mining activity, as it did for 16 days last year, or end it for good. The development of a new rare earths mine in the region, has seen increased hiring and some residents believe Minaçu should reinvent itself and move on from asbestos. But for others, without asbestos, the town is over. "If Sama stops, the town stops," said Joaquim de Souza, 54, who lives near Minaçu's massive hill of asbestos tailings. Some, like de Souza, wrongly believe chrysotile asbestos is harmless. 

This is a fascinating report on how the asbestos mining company, Sama, controlled the town, funding cultural, religious and sporting events, choosing the mayors and the councilors. Read it in Sight Magazine.

More information on Asbestos: In the workplace and In the Home.  

Allegations of sexual assault at Rio Tinto

In shocking news this week, 21 women working for mining company Rio Tinto reported actual or attempted rape or sexual assault in the past five years to a formal, independent review commissioned by the company. 10,300 workers responded to the review. 

The review, headed by former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick (EB & Co), was tasked with reviewing company culture.

The commissioning of the report came after WA parliamentary inquiry which revealed almost two dozen sexual assaults on mine sites had been investigated by police over a two-year period. 

The Rio Tinto report found sexism and bullying were systemic across the company's worksites. The report found:

  • Women were significantly more likely to experience sexism than men: the company's workforce is approximately 79 per cent male despite recent attempts to increase diversity
  • The majority of respondents reported everyday sexism which affected their self-esteem, personal relationships and general health
  • Almost half said they had been bullied

The company's chief executive Jakob Stausholm said the findings were "deeply disturbing". He said, "I offer my heartfelt apology to every team member, past or present, who has suffered as a result of these behaviours."  

Rio Tinto has committed to enacting all 26 recommendations made by the report aimed at preventing discrimination and an unacceptable workplace culture going forward.

It is ironic perhaps that Rio Tinto's former HSE chief has been appointed as chair of Safe Work Australia. Ms Joanne Farrell replaced Diane Smith-Gander as chair on February 1. Farrell had a 40-year career in the mining industry, and in late 2019 retired from her role as global head of health, safety and environment for Rio Tinto.
Read more: Female mine workers report sexual assault, harassment to independent Rio Tinto review, ABC News online 

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